Chaos has, indeed, risen. Dawn of War II's wonderful singleplayer campaign and interesting take on RTS multiplayer made it Gamervision's Strategy Game of the Year for 2009, and the new standalone expansion, Chaos Rising, looks to continue the excellence Relic brought to PCs last year. In order to do this, they've reached into the collectibles bin and pulled out the Chaos Space Marines, a fan favorite for Warhammer enthusiasts. With a story that picks up a year after the first left off and an expanded multiplayer offerings, Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II: Chaos Rising does a good job at bringing some much-needed RTS gameplay to the early months of 2010.
Many years before the start of the story, Aurelia, once a bustling planet, fell to the dark god worshiping Chaos. The a cold, frozen wasteland then disappeared from the universe in a massive warpstorm, and was thought to be a thing of the past until it reappeared, suddenly, and sent out a distress call. On it came the Chaos Space Marines, who look to destroy worlds as sacrifices to their dark gods. Obviously, the Blood Ravens take offense to this, and begin a campaign to stop the Chaos before it spreads to envelop the sector.
There is a traitor among their ranks, however, and the power of corruption is stronger than some expected. In terms of story, this means a fairly lengthy campaign with a number of twists and turns. In terms of gameplay, it means that each individual squad will struggle with the forces of Chaos with the Corruption system. Failing to complete side-missions and secondary objectives will have the Blood Raven forces slip towards Chaos, and while they'll never actually completely fall into the ranks with their enemies, their abilities will change depending on how corrupt they become. It's not as black and white as Fable's choices, and not as seamless as Mass Effect's, but it provides an alternate character build-out for each Marine, allowing the sacrifice of some abilities for others. The newest unit to the campaign, The Librarian, for instance, might lose a healing spell if he drifts into Corruption, gaining, instead, more damage dealing abilities. It all depends on what type of unit the player wants, and how many side quests he's willing to do to get it.
Corruption expends to additional War Gear as well, with some powerful items nudging players in one direction or another on the slider. Again, since it's not really a punishment to drift into the Chaos in Dawn of War II, it's simply a different path to take, making building characters all that more interesting. On that same note, an expanded level cap from 20 to 30 gives plenty of options as well, and a massive amount of new War Gear makes the Diablo-esque feeling of seeing an item drop as powerful as ever. Dawn of War's journey away from the heart of RTS continues, bringing with it the same gameplay elements that made the original feel more like a tactical shooter with RTS controls than an RTS with only a handful of units. Fantastic level design and a good variety in terms of mission objectives expand this even further.
Sadly, Chaos Rising shares the faults of the original as well, with some lengthy levels ending in difficult boss battles that feel somewhat cheap. Starting over keeps all of the gained experience and War Gear, luckily, making the next attempt easier, but since the gameplay has already moved so far from the RTS, it feels as though other elements of the game should too. Proper checkpoints, the ability to save mid-fight, or even more interesting boss battles would have helped this from becoming the issue it is. Thankfully, the game is so fun that needing to replay a mission isn't the worst thing in the world. The third or fourth time, though, it becomes a little repetitive.
Most battles that take place have the Blood Ravens fighting against the forces of Chaos Space Marines, which might sound like a rehash of the game's regular Space Marines. That's not the case here. While they share some character models and others are simply pallet swaps, the forces of Chaos are a demonic, corrupted bunch, with powerful magic abilities and an entirely different set of units. This becomes more apparent during the multiplayer, where the Chaos have an entire set of units to choose from, some of which look similar to the Blood Ravens, and others which are more akin to the Undead from Warcraft III. Multiplayer, in general, is improved, with each race receiving new units, and a few new game modes to make it even more interesting. For anyone who enjoyed the first game's take on RTS multiplayer, the additions are nothing but bliss, but odds are it isn't going to win over anyone new.
Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II: Chaos Rising is a fantastic expansion to an already wonderful game. It shares all of the things that made the original great, and while it doesn't work towards fixing the problems in the formula, it isn't really that big of an issue. Hopefully, moving forward, the series can slowly adjust itself to allow for more gameplay mechanics as it feels itself slip further away from traditional RTS gameplay, but in the meantime I don't think anyone is going to complain. At the price, it's a must buy for fans of the series, continuing Relic's success at bringing the world of Warhammer to PCs.